Swire brings Italian flair to car market

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2011, 12:00am


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Nearly a decade after it closed its last Hong Kong dealership, Swire Pacific is re-entering the local car market - this time as the exclusive distributor for Italy's Alfa Romeo and Fiat marques.

'For Swire, we picked Alfa and Fiat because we believe these two brands have huge potential here,' said George Lau, managing director of the newly established Swire Motors unit.

'The Italians are very dedicated and committed ... the Hong Kong market for the principal [Fiat S.p.A.] is more important than elsewhere in Asia Pacific and we would like to focus on building up the brands in Hong Kong.'

Swire Motors launched its new enterprise in July with the opening of a service centre in To Kwa Wan. Last month, it opened a showroom for Alfa Romeo on Gloucester Road in Wan Chai, where many high-end car dealerships are located.

In the next two months, it plans to open a Fiat showroom-cum-cafe in Causeway Bay's newly renovated Leighton Centre - just around the corner from BMW's Mini Cooper dealership - that will focus on selling the cutesy, retro-styled Fiat 500 mini-car.

Lau estimates the investment by Swire will be around HK$40 million, or as much as HK$100 million if inventory is included.

The initial response from local car buyers has been strong. Swire Motors sold 100 cars within the first two weeks of its Wan Chai showroom opening - about as many cars as Fiat and Alfa sold in Hong Kong on an annual basis previously.

'The potential for Alfa and Fiat hasn't been well recognised in the market,' Lau said. 'This proves Hong Kong people have been waiting for these brands for a long time.'

Hong Kong's car market is small, but lucrative given its orientation towards higher-end brands. Car sales were up 8.6 per cent in the first seven months of the year to 17,580 units, according to Motor Traders Association of Hong Kong data.

Lau, who trained as an aerospace engineer and later helped establish Audi in Hong Kong, is keen to play up the Italian roots of the Fiat group's line-up and to contrast that with competing brands that are better established in the local market.

'Typically the first car Hongkongers buy is Japanese, because they are reliable, cheap and hassle-free,' he said.

'When they have more experience and are earning more money they buy a 'uniform', by which I mean a German car, like a Mercedes, BMW or Audi.

'But once you have a uniform, you are always looking for something sexy, which is an Italian car.'

The cornerstone of the Fiat brand in the local market will be the 500 model, which features fuel-sipping 1.2-litre or 1.4-litre engines and is a throwback to a tiny, two-door model popularised by the Italian carmaker in the 1960s.

The modern version, first previewed in 2007, sells locally from HK$175,000. Last week, Swire Motors launched a limited-edition Fiat 500 by Gucci, which retails for HK$279,000 and features Gucci logos on the headrests and two-tone seats upholstered in the 'Frau leather' you might find on the design house's handbags.

With Alfa Romeo, Swire is focusing on sales of the MiTo, a sporty small car that retails from around H$260,000. There is also a good deal of local interest in the 4C, a high-end sports car that Alfa first showed as a concept car in Geneva earlier this year.

It is not clear what the production model of the 4C will cost or when it will be available in Hong Kong, but Lau says orders for the car already account for around 10 per cent of sales volume. Swire is already taking HK$40,000 refundable deposits.

Beyond Alfa and Fiat, is Swire targeting other marques?

'We will keep our eyes open for brands that match with our values of quality and excellence,' says Lau. 'Most brands are already represented in Hong Kong.'